Our shyest visitor

Today I spotted a woodpecker that we often hear around the farm, but seldom see. We have both Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, as well as Red-bellied Woodpeckers, that visit our suet feeders in winter, but the most elusive member of the woodpecker family prefers to stay concealed in the woods. The Pileated Woodpecker is so shy that if you do happen to catch a glimpse of it as it scales the tree trunks looking for insects, it will quickly disappear from sight by moving to the opposite side of the tree. I was lucky and got a couple of seconds to snap this picture (believe me, I have taken many pictures where all I got was a tree trunk or a shot of wings as it flew away!)

Pileated woodpecker4.2017

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Pileated Woodpecker is one of the biggest, most striking forest birds on the continent. Look (and listen) for this crow-sized bird whacking at dead trees and fallen logs in search of their main prey, carpenter ants. Their excavations leave unique rectangular holes in the wood, which provide crucial shelter to many other species including swifts, owls, ducks, bats, and pine martens.


The Pileated’s primary food is ants, supplemented by woodboring beetle larvae, termites, and other insects such as flies, spruce budworm, caterpillars, cockroaches, and grasshoppers. They also eat wild fruits and nuts, including greenbrier, hackberry, sassafrass, blackberries, sumac berries, poison ivy, holly, dogwood, persimmon, and elderberry. In some diet studies, ants made up 40 percent of the pileated diet, and up to 97 percent in some individuals.

If you have dead or dying trees on your property, consider leaving them alone as they may attract Pileated Woodpeckers (as well as other woodpeckers, nuthatches, and other insect-loving birds) to forage, roost, or even nest in them. We have a lot of dead standing hemlocks next to the creek that were attacked by an invasive hemlock-eating pest that came here from Japan. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid kills hemlocks by sucking the nutrients from the tree, killing it in as little as 3 to 5 years.

Pileateds are quite vocal, typically making a high, clear, series of piping calls lasting several seconds. The loud call is sometimes described as sounding like a far-carrying laugh. What else would you expect from this flamboyant, exotic-looking bird!


The Fox Cometh…Again

They say that coyotes and foxes seldom occupy the same area. Both range a rather large territory and it does seem that once we cease hearing the coyote cries, it isn’t long before a fox pays us a visit and tries to pilfer one of our chickens. We lost a hen recently to a red fox and now the chickens are relegated to stay in the coop rather than roam at large as they would prefer.

Pursuant to our desire to let the farm go au naturel (to a point), the wildflowers and grasses have continued to grow. One drawback to this reconciliation with Nature is that the fox has more cover to sneak up on the chickens. Just beyond the “yard” that we mow, the tall grasses are mixed with chicory, milkweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, and a multitude of other wildflowers that make it hard to see a hungry fox sneaking up on his intended meal.

Front field

The unwelcome fox visits us every afternoon, hopeful that the chickens will be set free, whereby they can provide his next meal. He knows our schedule and that the dogs are up during the heat of the day. When the dogs detect the predator, they let him know that he is unwelcome, but thick-skinned varmint that he is, he continues to come around looking for a free meal.

We are down to a rooster that is living on borrowed time and five hens, four of which lay regularly. They provide all the eggs we can eat and I sell the rest to a produce store in town. I really don’t want to lose another one of our hens, so, for the foreseeable future, they are “cooped up.” We’ve been through this before. Eventually, the fox will lose interest and move on.  We, the chickens included, just need to be patient.

The Coyotes Were Back Last Night!

Our Eastern Coyote friends haven’t been around for most of the winter, but we heard their yips yesterday evening just after the sun went down. Their typical pattern is to stay a few days, dine on rabbits, mice, and whatever else they can find, and move on. They usually return a few weeks later.

Last March we had a female den up somewhere on our neighbor’s property. I saw her in the same field every day, hunting for mice in the clumps of dried grass. Must have been lucrative because she was there every morning like clockwork.


I snapped this picture last year of a female looking for mice to take back to her pups.

I’m curious to see if she will use the same den again this year. If she does, maybe I can get just a little closer. I was probably 100 yards away when I took the pictures last year and was amazed that the pictures turned out as good as they did.

We expanded our chicken run last fall in case the coyotes came around and we needed to keep the chickens up. We added plastic around two sides to keep out the wind and snow. They didn’t stay in there much, but it sure came in handy when we got a super cold spell in January and the big snow a week or so ago.
chicken coop

Our chickens are terrified of snow. Maybe because they didn’t have a chance to get used to it before we got hit with over two feet in a 24-hour period!

Today, it was 65 degrees and all the snow is gone. It sure felt good – to dogs, chickens, and humans alike. Spring is less than a month away!

Update: The Little Guy Fledged!

Well, it happened. I was watering the flowers on the front porch when a bird zoomed out of the phoebe nest and flew into a nearby tree. At first I thought it was the mother phoebe, but when I checked the nest, it was empty! The young phoebe had fledged! I watched him fly from one branch to another, which told me he had no injuries. Mama phoebe was close by, so she will show him the ropes. I didn’t expect it to happen so soon, but I’m happy that the little guy was able to leave the nest and start life on his own. 

Can You ID These Two Birds?

Sometimes, particularly in late spring and early summer, when juvenile birds haven’t yet grown in their adult plumage, it’s tough to identify them. Other times, a new bird shows up that you haven’t seen before and it doesn’t look like anything in the bird field guides. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

I came across this bird on the side of the gravel road we live on. It’s not a great picture and he’s well camouflaged, so you have to look closely. I thought it might be an Ovenbird, but no. The bird that I think it is is sparrow-sized and likes areas with rushing streams and clear brooks, while its northern counterpart prefers swamps and bogs.

This one really threw me. I became very excited when I first saw it – a new bird to add to my list of birds seen on our farm (65 and counting). I felt sure that the reddish-brown on the bird’s breast would give it away, but no such luck. I was beginning to get frustrated when I figured it out. We have a lot of them on our farm; this one is a juvenile.

Can you identify one or both of these birds?

Update: A Lucky Survivor!

This morning I thought both baby birds had succumbed to the attack of the black snake last night. The smaller of the two was cold to the touch and obviously dead; the larger one, though still warm to the touch, was unresponsive and I presumed, dying.

You can imagine my surprise when a couple hours later I heard a little chirp. At first I thought I was hearing the birds outside, but when I checked, one of the babies was moving. I could see his eyes were open and as I approached, his beak opened wide – he was hungry!

I couldn’t put the nest back on the ledge for fear the baby would fall out, so I placed it and the little bird in a hanging pot of petunias close to the site of the original nest and waited to see what happened. The distraught parents had been hanging around all morning, not knowing what to do. When the baby heard them calling, he began cheeping and no sooner had I walked away than they flew over. They were both very animated, obviously glad to see that one of their chicks had survived.

Here’s a picture of the little guy in the nest this evening. He’s alert and eating.

Baby phoebe in nest

I hope he makes it. Only time will tell if he suffered any internal injuries.

The Birds Outside My Window

During the bird nesting season, our porch rafters are quite a popular place. Last spring, I wrote about the Eastern Phoebes that raised five offspring on our front porch (https://woodandfield.wordpress.com/2012/05/23/safe-haven/).

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

Phoebes three days before leaving the nest

This spring, the pair returned to build their nest of mud, lichens, and moss on the same ledge where they successfully raised their offspring last year. Likewise, a pair of Eastern Bluebirds returned to raise another generation in a birdhouse on the front porch. Adding to the menagerie, House Wrens are nesting on the back porch. I find it amazing that some birds choose to raise their young so close to all our comings and goings, not to mention the noise from the lawn mower and weed whacker, and dogs racing around barking at the deer, fox, and other critters that occasionally wander through.

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

Male Eastern Bluebird watching over the nest

The list of nest predators is a long one: hawks, owls, crows, blue jays, weasels, fox, squirrels, snakes, and cats. In the wild, the odds are stacked against the young nestlings. So, weighing the scales, it would seem the lesser of the two evils to endure the closeness of humans. In any event, it ended well for all the little ones last year. All of the offspring survived to leave the nest and start out life on their own.

But, alas, the nestlings can’t be protected from every predator. Last night while we were watching TV, we heard a loud “thump” out on the porch. When we investigated, we saw that a black snake had knocked down the phoebe nest and was in the process of eating one of the babies(!) My husband relocated the snake to the woods while I inspected the nest, which was, amazingly, still largely in tact. Two babies were under the nest and were still alive, so I scooped up the nest and babies and took them into the house for the night.

By this morning, the babies had died, probably from internal injuries suffered from the fall. I know it’s a part of Nature, but loss of any life makes me sad. I take hope in knowing that in this season of renewal, perhaps the phoebes will try again. I miss the pair’s constant “phoebe, phoebe” back-and-forth calling as they busily went about their parenting responsibilities.

When I bought my farm, I did not know what a bargain I had in the bluebirds, daffodils and thrushes; as little did I know what sublime mornings and sunsets I was buying. Ralph Waldo Emerson